Will the metaverse promote travel? I asked the game designer: Travel Weekly

Arne Weissman

Last month, on a sunny Saturday morning, I hiked a trail in Sabino Canyon, outside of Tucson, Ariz. From all around, the geology and flora of the Santa Catalina Mountains were on splendid display.

I stopped at a point of view. A family of four, two parents and two teenagers died. Teens actively engaged on their phones, and somehow managed to keep their feet while they were on… Snapchat? Is it an electronic game? Pokemon Go?

They were somewhere in the metaverse, described (in part) by technology consultant Shelly Palmer as a world “where everyone lives their perfect lives, visits great places, hangs out with incredible people, and has the photographic evidence to prove it.” His article “What is the Metaverse?” It should be read and ends with caution that efforts to predict where the metaverse’s direction will likely miss the mark. Technology (and imagination) simply does not advance in a predictable, linear fashion.

But understanding the premise that alternate, immersive worlds, optimized to allow our senses to live in places we can’t go without virtual, augmented, extended, and mixed realities, is a good starting point for envisioning how this might affect travel. Will he compete, as the teens at Sabino Canyon suggest, for an interest in physical travel? Enrich your travel experience? Underestimate?

I suspect all of the above. Would the teens, or their parents, have found the valley more interesting if their sunglasses could explain or tell real-time information about cacti, rock formations, or the history of the land they were crossing? Or, alternately, would they have enjoyed an app and wearable device around the valley into first-person shooter terrain in which they compete with like-minded hikers turned avatars as they progress down the trail?

The former would definitely boost the height for me; I was already stopping by and google what I was seeing, and sunglasses with tech could have been more efficient. (My experience with Google Glass and Snap’s Spectacles has been less than satisfactory. But, as they say, “early days.”)

I brought up the question of the metaverse’s impact on travel to Richard Garriott de Cayeux, an early video game developer who is credited with being the first to use the word “avatar” in the context of games and was the inspiration for the character James Halliday in the Ernest Cline metaverse — author of “Ready Player” One” (Crown Publishing, 2011), made into a Steven Spielberg film.

“These technologies have great promise but they also risk significantly shallow trials,” he told me. “When the most widely available tool is the smartphone and not the wearable, we tend to direct people to the shallow end of the spectrum. Whether you go to Disney World or the Grand Canyon, the photo spots that people pre-selected will find the best location in the background. for taking a selfie and may also offer tools to augment images with a virtual overlay, such as Nessie appearing in the background in Loch Ness.

“People will drive for hours to the rim of the Grand Canyon, stand there for a few minutes, take a selfie and drive back without spending time wondering about the layers of rock or flipping the log to see what lives underneath,” he continued.

“We’re already seeing people abandoning a deep relationship with the real world in favor of the shallow, fast version of the real world.”

He believes that the more positive end of this spectrum is still far away. Garriott de Cayeux, who is currently president of Explorers Club and has a keen interest in microorganisms that can withstand extreme conditions, said he would love to have a wearable that can identify unique physical spots by chemical or temperature.

“The market will dictate how that develops,” he said. “But it’s time for us to wrestle with it.”

The enhanced overlay of information about the physical world is clearly a plus, but central to thinking about the impact of the metaverse is its ability to enhance or break down human interactions, a major driver of travel.

On the other hand, Garriot de Caillou said he was shocked by the strength of the bonds that formed in the virtual worlds. “People fall in love. Virtual worlds can transcend the distances of the physical world to bring people together.”

We have already seen many examples of how virtual worlds can inspire travel through the physical world. They can be great selling and marketing tools, and I’m excited about the ways the metaverse might enrich travel.

But the evidence of “superficiality” is everywhere. It’s still inappropriate to see people with their eyes glued to their phones in a normal path, but it’s common on New York’s sidewalks. Assuming that hardware only becomes more immersive as the metaverse evolves, that idyllic life, where you can actually visit amazing places and hang out with incredible imaginary people, can also, simultaneously, speed up the real world’s disconnection from each other and from the places where we are physically living at.

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